Historians and others interested in English political history have studied and theorized long and hard over the controversy of the trial and execution of Mary Stuart, Queen of Scots. Her case is incredibly poignant since her condemnation involves the politics of Scotland and England as well as other European nations and the religious controversies and philosophical theories of the day. Her trial and death are infamous to all familiar with English history. Perhaps she stands out most to modern eyes most due to her lack of conformity to the political and religious ideals of 16th century England and her way of interacting with her accusers. Nonetheless, historians have debated whether or not her trial and death were in fact justified. Although we cannot truly understand the times in which the trial ensued, we can surmise how others felt it was justified or unjustified and come to our own conclusions about the matter. Such is the intent of this essay.
Some will state that the trial of Mary Queen of Scots was indeed justified. Their justification is based almost entirely on her association and conspiracy with certain English Catholics who wished to place Mary Stuart on the throne instead of Elizabeth Tudor; this is what her accusers called treason. Their justification had deeper roots than her mere association with Catholic rebels. It stemmed from her nationality, religion, and foreign associations. Long before Elizabeth came to the throne, her father “left a will excluding the Stuart line from the English succession, and Elizabeth’s supporters brandished it at every opportunity” (Lewis 9). Mary Stuart’s accusers, high ranking Protestant MPs as well as Throckmorton and Cecil, resented her because of her nationality, religion, and foreign alliances; her acts of treason gave their resentment a legal opportunity to fulfill its desire. As Lewis aptly puts, Mary was feared by English Protestants for her Scottish and French bloodline and her Catholicism (9). Mary Stuart “posed a serious threat both to England’s makeshift unity of political affection and to Elizabeth’s personal authority” (Lewis 9). Being of the Scottish royal line, she was essentially prohibited from becoming England’s queen (Lewis 9). Moreover, she was heavily allied with France through the Auld Alliance to France which was England’s bitter Catholic enemy. Mary’s possible accession to the throne would have been “disastrous to a Protestant England” (Lewis 17). Because of her religious alliance with Spain, France and Italy, members of Parliament wanted her dead. Lewis states, “They insisted that this ‘traitoress and pestilence to Christendom’ was too hostile to Elizabeth to live” (18). Their wishes for her death came soon. Toward the end of her nineteen year captivity in England, she was caught with letters to Anthony Babington, a young English catholic, who, with her help, was going to overthrow Elizabeth and place Mary on the throne (Lewis 19). Her correspondence, which was monitored by Walsingham, was not only between herself and Babington, but there were letters to the pope, her French family and friends, as well as other English Catholics (Lewis 17). When the letters were unearthed between her and Babington, Mary was confronted in August 1586 and charged with treason (Lewis 19). Her status as a Scottish/French Catholic with a purer line to the throne made her a number one enemy of England and Elizabeth but her treason sealed the deal and gave her accusers enough justification for her trial.
There are other historians who think that her trial was unjustified. They have at least Elizabeth to sympathize with since she wasn’t fully compliant with her MPs’ decision. Reasons for Mary Stuart’s trial being unjustified primarily hang on one large matter. The material for condemning her of treason was heavily doctored and some claim she was framed. The evidence for her trial was never sufficiently proven. Lewis states, “Although the letters between Mary and Babington were real, it is also likely that Elizabeth’s ministers, far more eager for Mary’s death than was Elizabeth herself, doctored at least one of them, adding a postscript that seemed to request the names of Babington’s coconspirators” (19). Moreover, Walsingham “also secretly encouraged the Babington conspiracy, if not to frame the Queen of Scots outright, then at least with the aim of creating a situation in which she would only incriminate herself” (Lewis 19). Such involvement puts a dark mark on the verity of her trial as well as other arguments in favor of Mary Stuart. Mary argued in her albeit hasty defense that her trial was “irregular” considering the fact that she was a queen, had not actually received such a letter from Babington, and was not a subject of Queen Elizabeth (Lewis 22). She saw herself as an appointed queen and not a common felon (Lewis 22). Her accusers shot this defense down with the reasoning that since she abdicated from the throne of Scotland, she was therefore stripped of her queenly might (Lewis 22). Her claim for not having received Babington’s letter were set in denials of wanting Elizabeth dead and telling them that letters before them were forged (Lewis 24). Her accusers countered with testimonies from her private secretaries who assented to her having corresponded with Babington (Lewis 24). Her last defense of not being the Queen’s subject was shot down through arguments about law and whether or not Scotland was in fact part of England. She declared that since she was an anointed queen, she stood above all earthly law (Lewis 26). Her accusers did, as it seems, doctor her trial and the laws condemning her so as to pin her down without any hope of acquittal. Laws, especially the Bond of association, were tailored to nab her in any way they could so that England would remain safe from the likes of Mary Stuart. Therefore some would call her trial unjustified due to the lopsided laws and court proceedings.
Was her trial justified or unjustified? Putting all religious or political affiliations aside, one must consider the legal ramifications and use what evidence there is. Doubtless the evidence piled against her was somewhat doctored but nonetheless, the letters found in correspondence with her and Babington suggested treason. Looking just at those facts, I would say it was justified. However, there is another side of the matter which much be considered; her own defense. I will admit that her defense is quite stalwart. Knowing English and Scottish history, Scotland was not joined with England till after Elizabeth’s death so her claim of not being Elizabeth’s subject due to her foreign birth would be legitimate. However, there are two legal ramifications which make it hard for her to avoid. One, she was in England at the time wherein she conspired against Elizabeth therefore making her subject to English law. This is true today. Were I to commit a crime in a different nation or even a different state, I would be liable to the punishments of that law whether I was a citizen or not. Mary stated, in true Stuart fashion, that she was above the law since she was an “anointed queen.” I would say that this is untrue. No man or woman is higher than the law of God or man in any country. A king may make the laws but he is not above them. Here in the US we have plenty of cases where our presidents have broken the law and therefore had to pay the consequences. The English Protestants of the 16th and 17th centuries believed no differently. Their zeal against her as a Catholic and a Scot may have been too harsh but their views of law, however flawed it may be, were quite true. Therefore I would say that since she is not above the law and since she had possession of certain papers of conspiracy, her trial was indeed justified.